There’s still a traveling show. It just doesn’t come with elephants and acrobats. No clowns. No popcorn. Or much of anything else. There aren’t three rings either. It’s been a long time since a circus traveled the country. It’s been a long time since a lot of things.
No troubadours going from town to town. If you sing or play an instrument, you gotta be quiet about it. Artists are a thing of the past, unless you have a particular talent with portraits of the Old Man. Then your art will be on every street corner and you’ll be invited to State dinners and feted with toasts and declarations.
The traveling show consists of just one ring. And a giant crane perched next to the ring. There’s no shallow pool of water in the ring. No, it’s just a bunch of hay bales forming a circle around a patch of cracked concrete in an old parking lot. And a quiet crowd that arcs out from the circle, paying silent witness.
It’s called The Jump.
It’s been traveling the country for a couple of years now. Every once in a while, somebody famous makes the jump and they put it on television. For a lot of people, it’s a nice break from twenty-four hours of government-approved “news.” Or maybe it’s just that people are voyeurs and need to see something that makes their sad lives look better. Or maybe because we’ve been directed to watch. Whatever the reason, everybody watches.
I don’t. Well, I did. Once. It was some senator from Oklahoma. There were a few people who went before him, climbing the ladder up the side of the crane, crawling out to the end. One of them, an old man, I think, tried to turn around. They didn’t let him. The senator was the grand finale. He went without hesitation. And I remember the TV cameras down on the ground trained their lenses on the spectators as they walked away. The vacant stares will stay with me forever.
I haven’t watched since. I don’t care if we are told to. I don’t care if it is a national holiday whenever The Jump is televised. I stay at the shop and clean up. Or go for a walk. I stay away from televisions. I know that.
* * * * *
I work at a fish store. No, not an aquarium like in the old days. I’ve seen pictures in old magazines of those places, filled with fish tanks and exotic sea creatures. Giant murals of ocean scenes painted on the walls. I inspected those pictures closely, bringing them close to my face, trying to see all the different kinds of fish that floated in the tanks. They’re all gone now.
One day, the Old Man had a picture taken of him in his office. On the credenza behind him, there was a small bowl with a gold fish in it and a ping pong ball bobbing on the water’s surface. Within a couple of months, every town and neighborhood had small stores dedicated solely to that purpose. Selling people gold fish with ping pong balls. That’s where I worked.
The place used to be a cigar store before the Old Man banned cigars. So, it was small and still smelled of old men telling stories. The walls were lined with shelves though. And fish bowl after fish bowl, each with one regular, old gold fish floating along, and a white ping pong ball bobbing along as well. Each bowl had white rock on the bottom and the same piece of plastic green sea plant on the right side.
This is how things went with the Old Man. When he discussed a book he read, bookstores stocked only that book until there was nobody left to buy it. If he ate at a restaurant, it became the hardest place to get into and franchises opened everywhere.
We were in the midst of gold fish and ping pong ball mania. There was no telling how much longer the craze would last. I was predicting another five weeks or so. Joe, who worked the late shift at the store, thought it would die out sooner than that. It didn’t really matter though. We were good. The need for a gold fish and ping pong ball would be replaced by something else soon enough and they’d need workers for that. I’d never kept any job for more than a couple months, but there was always something new out there. If nothing else, the Old Man had certainly established a full employment system for people like me. Uneducated, lazy, good-for-nothing.
I had my money on jigsaw puzzles. Joe had his on croquet. I wondered how that would work though. Sure, the Old Man had a lawn for playing, that vast expanse of green that still wrapped around the White House, but hardly anybody else did. Lawns being a thing of the extravagant past. If it was croquet, there’d be a whole lot of useless croquet sets in closets everywhere. Much like the useless fish bowls showing up in family rooms and bedrooms everywhere. Like mine. I brought one home my first day at the store. The fish died a couple of days later. I never even named it.
* * * * *
The Jump came to town a couple of weeks ago after an absence of a little over a year. It was July. Hot and sticky. People did what they could to stay indoors, until The Jump arrived.
It usually stuck around for a week or two. The length depended on how many people wanted it. And that was something nobody knew. In some towns it lasted for only a few days with only a straggler or two each day. In others, The Jump set up and saw brisk business for days and weeks. Although business may be the wrong word for it. The Jump was not a business for it charged no money.
A business it wasn’t. It was a lot of other things though. Entertainment. An escape. Maybe a sociology experiment. A distraction. Certainly, it was that. With The Jump traveling around, people couldn’t focus on everything else that was wrong. Food lines. Farm land drying up and blowing with the wind. Gas shortages. Airplanes falling from the sky. In other words, a whole lot of misery and desperation. The Jump was at least a way to forget that for a moment or two.
For others, it was an end.
It looked like The Jump wouldn’t last very long in town with that visit. Lots of crowds showed up in the blistering heat, but there weren’t many jumpers. And no famous locals. If that had happened, if it had made it on to the television, there might have been more interest. But, the rich and the powerful, the known and the well-connected, sat it out that time. An announcement was made that The Jump would be moving on in two days.
I got off work the eve of The Jump’s departure and saw a note taped to my apartment door. I threw it on the kitchen table and went into the bathroom to take a leak. It was an even day so I wasn’t supposed to flush. I did anyway. I was a rebel, don’t you know. Not one of the Rebels who operated out in the wastelands between the cities and every once in a while launched a rocket or two just to keep things interesting. No, I was a little “r” rebel, with my dead fish, flushing when I wanted, and my own little personal herb patch out on the balcony. Basil and oregano.
Back out in the kitchen, I grabbed the note and opened it. I read it and then dropped it and fled down the stairs, cursing the whole way that the Old Man had done away with phones of all types years ago. I had vague memories from my childhood of phones in people’s pockets, of having conversations with people far away. My sister was going to take The Jump and all I had was a note to tell me. For all I knew, the note had been there all day and I was going to be too late.
Out on the street, I panicked. I couldn’t think straight. Which way was best to get to the old fairgrounds? I took a few steps to the right and began to run. I got a couple of blocks down the street before I remembered the river was to the right and the bridges would be a problem. Packed with people going home or trying to escape the city for a day or three. I retraced my steps and went left and took the long way around.
I ran until I couldn’t anymore. Sweat poured off me in buckets. Through my stinging eyes, I saw it looming ahead of me.
I cursed Nicole for even thinking of it, although I could almost understand. Our parents had both gone in the past few months. Our mother, just walked off one of those bridges and plummeted into the river never to be seen again. And our dad? We didn’t know. Two weeks after she died, he disappeared as well, but nobody knows where or how. One day, he was puttering around the family home we had grown up in, pruning the bootleg roses they still kept in the back yard. Sitting at the kitchen table with a faraway look in his eyes. The next day, he was gone. The roses watered one last time. The beds neatly made, the dishes cleaned and put away. It looked like he was coming back. Only he never did.
Secretly, I hoped my dad was out there somewhere. Actually, it was more than a hope. I had an idea because a day or two before Mom walked off the bridge, he took me down into their basement and showed me a hiding place he was building. A place where he was storing stuff he said “we might need.” So I thought there was that. Maybe he was traveling around. He was young still. Not even 60. He could be walking back roads, finding places to stay at night. There was still charity out there. You just had to be quiet about it. Maybe he’d work for somebody for a few days for some hot meals and a bed in the corner before moving on. Maybe he was with the Rebels.
Or not. If that’s what he did, wouldn’t have told us?
Nicole was in the “or not” camp. The way she figured it, he was with mom, somewhere in the river, their bloated bodies trapped on a riverbank miles downstream. She never seemed to be able to get that image out of her head.
So, I understood. Really I did.
As I approached the fairgrounds, the spectators were going in the opposite direction. I looked up and saw that there was nobody climbing up. Nobody perched out on the end. It looked like the jumping day was done.
I picked up my pace again, pushing through the crowd until I got to the ring of hay bales. I hesitated before peeking over. I felt for a moment like I was little again and we were watching The Shining on television. I wanted to cover my eyes and peek between my fingers at what was in the center of those hay bales. I didn’t. I looked. There were five broken bodies in the middle and few others that had been pushed to the sides. I looked as quickly as I could. Nicole wasn’t one of them.
I looked around to see if I could find her there among the living and then made my way to the registration booth. On the wall was a list of the day’s jumpers. I put my finger to the first name and then ran it down the sheet of paper. Nicole Bell was not on the list. I breathed for the first time since I read her note and turned around.
“Nicole!” I yelled. “Nicole! Nicole!” The stragglers who had yet to leave turned to look at me before turning back to their own demons. Several of them lingered by the bales, seemingly unable to take their eyes off the bodies. Others huddled about in small groups, whispering to each other. My noise apparently was misplaced given the looks I received and soon, as I continued to yell my sister’s name, a couple of police officers began to make their way towards me.
“No need, officers,” I said to them before they got close. “I’m on my way.” They kept coming so I shut up quick and made my way to the exit, looking over my shoulder only once to see they had decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. And I wasn’t, I was just looking for my sister. No trouble at all.
I wandered the streets back to my apartment as the sun went down. I detoured by Nicole’s place and pounded on her door, getting no answer. The streets got emptier and quieter as I made my way home. People were in their homes and apartments where they belonged, watching the news they were supposed to watch, eating the food they were supposed to eat. In a few hours, lights would go out and prayers to the Old Man would be recited. And in the morning, people would rise and do it all over again.
Only The Jump would be leaving town. I thought I might go back in the morning before my shift at the fish store began to make sure it really was. I needed to see the thing being dismantled and loaded on the flatbed trucks that took it to the next town. I also hoped I could get some official confirmation my sister was not among the jumpers.
I didn’t do that though. When I reached the third floor landing, I saw Nicole curled into a ball in front of my door. I sat down next to her and brought her into my arms. She sobbed into my shoulder, “I just couldn’t do it, Cam. I wanted to find Mom, but I just couldn’t.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” The heat of her fear and anger at what we had lost soaked into my shirt. “I need you here.”
“I miss them.”
I pulled her up and into the apartment. We curled up on the sofa together and I let her cry until she couldn’t anymore. Once she was calmed, I told her, “We won’t ever find Mom, but I have an idea.” It was true. There were witnesses who saw her fall from the bridge and others who watched and didn’t see her surface.
I told Nicole my idea. She smiled and agreed.
In the morning, we paid a visit to our old family home. It was empty still. I showed Nicole the hiding place. The backpacks and supplies. We geared up and crossed one of the bridges to the outskirts of our city, where we had lived our entire lives, and kept walking. Nicole decided to leave the “or not” camp.
We would find our father.
Or we would die trying.
It was better than the alternative.
* ** END * * *
Several weeks ago, I woke from a dream. This doesn’t happen often. I rarely remember my dreams, which raises a question — if you don’t remember a dream, did the dream actually happen? People say that all the time — I don’t remember my dreams — maybe because you don’t have any?
Anyway, this dream was simple. I received a call from my sister. She called to tell me that she was going to do The Jump. Hence this story.